Rita Swiener is one of those people who always seems to know what she wants. Even as a six-year-old growing up in the slums of Pittsburgh, she was certain of which gifts she hoped Hanukkah would bring at the orphanage where she lived.
“I said I wanted a nurse’s kit and a doll that will close its eyes,” recalled Swiener. “They said, ‘Pick one. Don’t be greedy.’ I couldn’t pick one. It was really hard.”
It’s a choice that Swiener, who now teaches psychology at St. Louis Community College and Maryville University, didn’t think other children should have to make just because they were less fortunate. That’s why she founded Santa’s Helpers, an organization that ensures kids in difficult circumstances can still enjoy the holidays just as much as those whose families are well-off.
“I think about the woman who lives in East St. Louis and takes three buses to go to a shopping mall at night to clean it. Then she comes down with breast cancer,” said Swiener, 71. “She couldn’t afford a bus and she couldn’t afford to take off work but she had to for chemo. She knew there’d be no Christmas for her and her kids. We got together, the oncology lab helped get her get a bus pass for a month and we made sure her kids had Christmas.”
It all started in 1968 when Swiener, a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, was asked by a professor to help a family who had “fallen through the cracks.” Swiener convened the Evening College Council on campus and it voted to do a sponsorship.
But the council’s interest was short-lived and the following year it didn’t continue the effort. Yet Swiener and a few council members weren’t done. They picked up the campaign and helped the original family for the next four years. After that, Santa’s Helpers started expanding. Today, the program, which is still run entirely by a volunteer staff, helps more than 600 families every year to provide gifts for those in need.
Swiener and three others handle shopping, often doing it just after Christmas when toys are marked-down or during the spring when coats and socks can be picked up cheaply.
FAMILY: One son, Larry; two grandchildren; two great-grandchildren
HOME: University City
OCCUPATION: Professor of psychology, adjunct faculty, St. Louis Community College and Maryville University
FUN FACT: Swiener loves to take sea cruises annually.